Drona died on the fifteenth day of the Kurukshetra War. Ashwatthama suggested Karna to be appointed as generalissimo of the Kaurava army, but Shalya objected.
“He is your son-in-law, Honoured King,” said Ashwatthama, “and this is not the time to rake up old animosities.”
“I never accepted nor acknowledged him as my son-in-law. But my objection has little to do with his relationship or lack of it to my house. Karna is a suta-putra; not a pure bred kshatriyan.”
“O Great King Shalya, Karna is a worthy adversary to Arjuna,” said Duryodhana.
“Perhaps, on his best day, he might come close to matching the Pandava. But ordinarily, Karna will wither before Arjuna’s rain of perfectly placed shots. There is no better archer alive in all of Bharata.”
“You concede Karna can match Arjuna,” said Duryodhana.
“I concede he might come close, but he remains a suta, and that is unacceptable.”
“Do you think Krishna is a capable chariot driver for Arjuna?”
“O Hope of the Kuru Race, why pose questions for which you already know the answer? The Blue One is more than capable. Keshava complements Arjuna. That’s why we need a generalissimo who can better Arjuna. And Karna is not the man to replace Rajguru Devadrona, let alone Grandsire Bhishma.”
“In your eyes, Karna is not a better archer than Arjuna. How then do we appoint him generalissimo and ensure that our army is invincible?” said Duryodhana.
“Have you not heard my words? We don’t appoint the suta-putra. We appoint someone else,” said Shalya, and he slapped his thigh to show he was ready to bear the burden.
“With your help, O Shalya, the Kaurava army will be invincible,” said Duryodhana.
“What do you mean?” said Shalya, and he betrayed a small smile, for he desperately wanted to be generalissimo.
“Since Karna is second best to Arjuna, we need an excellent chariot driver; one who will balance the scales; one who will join Karna and form a team equal to Krishna and the Pandava,” said Duryodhana.
“Karna may be lacking,” said Sakuni, cutting in before the Madhra king could speak. “But as a charioteer, you are more proficient than Krishna. With you beside Karna, you two, as a team, will surely prevail over the Krishna-Arjuna combination.”
“You will ride against Krishna, and who better than you to go against him?” said Duryodhana.
Shalya went silent; frowned. The other kings nodded; encouraged him to accept the honour of riding against Lord Krishna.
“Arjuna is number one; Karna is number two; and that makes three for their side,” said Ashwatthama. “You are more than number one; Krishna is number two; and that makes more than three for our side. With you driving the chariot, victory is ours.”
Duryodhana had handpicked the kings who attended this special war council to appoint the generalissimo. They agreed with Ashwatthama’s simplistic inference. And the Madhra king allowed himself to be convinced as he sensed the others distancing from his stand. He relented.
“Now that you have made your scheme clear; and for the greater good of our unity and victory, I support Karna’s elevation to generalissimo.”
“And you agree to drive Karna’s chariot,” said Duryodhana. Shalya agreed but added a condition.
“As I will be Krishna’s opposite, but Karna must accept my counsel as much as Arjuna accepts Krishna’s advice.”
“I’m sure the Angaraj will agree with everything possible if it leads to vanquishing the Pandava,” said Duryodhana. “And that includes taking your good counsel.”
“And so, I convinced the Madhra to agree to drive for you and accept you as his generalissimo,” said Duryodhana. The Angaraj back slapped the Kaurava heir, and they laughed.
“And the Madhra said I’ll have to take his counsel?” said Karna.
His friend grinned and Karna added. “Does he not see the contradiction? I will be his commanding general and he is honour bound to obey me.”
“We all have our egos, Karna. Some of us have larger egos than others. But I pray you take heed of his advice where you see the advantage.”
“Of course, my friend. If he suggests a toilet break, I’ll heed his advice.” Again, the friends laughed. Duryodhana said,
“There is something else you need to do, my friend, to seal your appointment and rouse the generals who might harbour ill-will against you.”
“I’m sure it will be a reasonable request,” replied Karna.
“Humble yourself; seek blessings from one whom many hold dear. Do this for me. Please.”
They reached the tent where Bhishma lay on his death bed made from a pile of arrows. Karna touched the fallen hero’s feet and sought blessings.
“Karna, whatever our past quarrels, do not hold it against my dear grandchildren on both sides of the divide,” said Bhishma. “Uphold honour; adhere to the kshatriyan codes. Make your parents proud. Make me proud.”
That was the most the Grandsire conceded. Bhishma, steeped in tradition and history, and even when lying on his deathbed, would not acknowledge Karna’s military prowess; could not go against his conviction that only pure bred kshatriyans made the finest heroes. Though an avatar of an Ashta-Vasu, the Third held him in a grip.
The Angaraj, already weighed down with the grave challenges facing him, let bygones be bygones.
“I will uphold the kshatriyan code, Grandsire, and make my parents proud. I will make you proud of me, too. These are promises I make today to you and these promises are no less than the promise I gave my saviour, Duryodhana.”
“Even now, you speak of I and not we.” Bhishma sighed. “Go with my blessings and may the gods look upon you with benevolent eyes.”
“Yes, I speak of I because I believe I am responsible for my actions and I will answer to my Overself as you will to your Overself.”
“Perhaps you have some insights, Karna, that hold you back as it sometimes holds back Arjuna,” said Bhishma. “Temper your martial prowess with humility and you’ll shine bright.”
*** Copyright @ 2022, Eric Alagan ***